The Youth Birding Competition is a 24-hour birding event during the peak of spring migration. Youth teams spend the day finding as many species as they can as they compete against teams their own age in the state of Georgia. At least 2 people should see or hear the bird and correctly identify it. It begins at 5pm and ends at 5pm the following day at Charlie Elliot Wildlife Center. It was founded by Tim Keyes in 2005, when he was inspired by the World Series of Birding Youth Challenge.
The Chaotic Kestrels team was founded by me in 2006 and has been active ever since. This year the team was made up of five members: Rosemary, a world class marks-woman, talented artist, and YBC mentor. Patrick, master of identification, world traveler, and is quick to spot a rare bird. Evan, track star , great photographer, and football aficionado. Angus, photography fiend, great artist, and somehow sees and hears everything. Finally there is me, Ethan, coordinator, possessor of van, and eater of food.
Our story begins on Friday April 25th, when my father and I picked up Evan and his father, Todd, in Macon. We were all going to meet on the coast like we had in years past. Normally, we camp on Jekyll Island, but this year Rosemary managed to get us a place to stay in Darien near Atamaha Wildlife Management Area. The trip down was calm and pleasant. My father and Todd talked about photography, while Evan beat me at chess. It was nice, and it would be the only peace they would get the entire weekend. We’re called chaotic for a reason.
When we arrived at Altamaha, I lost a majority of my voice. Voices are important if you want to tell people where birds are! I didn’t have much time to think about it before Rosemary runs up to us talking about the bees. Naturally “beeing” curious, I asked to see the bees, and sure enough there was two boxes of honey bees. Then she went to go talk to some Department of Natural Resources people who were there, leaving as suddenly as she had appeared. Evan and I then went inside unload our gear where we greeted by Rosemary’s little sister. She said, “Don’t mess anything up,” and abruptly left. Looking around the check station I noticed that it did have 500 less mice then I remembered it having, so I didn’t. We then ate lunch and heard stories about Rosemary and her family shooting hogs to protect sea turtles on the coast.
We came back to home base to pick up Angus and Patrick. We met Angus’ dad and his little sister, and he explained that they were over looking at some ducks. The way Altamaha is set up, it had two big platforms that you can set scopes up on. Also, there are trails so you can walk along the water. Naturally, they were a mile down one of those trails. Evan, Angus’ Dad, Rosemary, and I set out to find them, but that soon turn it to just Evan and me. By the time we found them my voicelessness had progressed into a lovely cold. Patrick, Angus, and his little brother’s team had found Lesser Scaup, Black-necked Stilt, and more birds. We then drug them back to the home base. The Chaotic Kestrels were reunited!
It was 4:57pm, we were on South Beach, Jekyll Island. Angus, Evan, Rosemary, and Patrick were watching a flock of various of gulls and terns. I was continuing my annual tradition of watching my good friend the Wilson’s Plover. I believe Wilson, (yes, we have that kind of relationship) has been our first bird of the competition since 2010. I had been having migraines that made me sensitive to sunlight especially when the sun was setting. I had to wear sunglasses most of the day, adding an extra layer to my weird persona. Wilson’s thick bill and body shape makes it easy to identify even with the shades. I kept up with the checklist so people with eyes could see things. It was 4:59pm and Evan was sent over so we could count my dear, Wilson. It was finally time for the competition. I immediately crossed off Wilson’s Plover from the list. You wouldn’t think that putting an “x” down on a piece of paper would give me an adrenaline rush, but it does. Willet, Laughing Gull, Ring-billed Gull, Common Tern, Forster’s Tern, Caspian Tern, Least Tern, and Black Scoter soon followed after it. Once we saw everything we could, we ran back to the van. Evan suggested that we run everywhere earlier and I dismissed it with a chuckle, but here we were, running everywhere. It is impressive when you are carrying binoculars, cameras, and a scope. It is even more impressive when you are living on DayQuil and Patrick has a broken arm.
We made a few more stops on Jekyll Island to get Black-crowned Nightheron, Yellow-crowned Nightheron, Short-billed Dowitcher, Long-billed Dowitcher, Painted Bunting, Black-and-White Warbler, and a few other species. Then we headed to Andrews Causeway to pick up Red-breasted Meganser and Clapper Rail.
Our next stop was Altamaha WMA. We saw Black-bellied Whistling-ducks, Black-necked Stilts, Mottled Duck, American Bittern, Least Bittern, and Soras. We all great looks at the Soras and bitterns, even me with my ridiculous sunglasses. We encountered another team. As we passed them Angus leaned over to Patrick and asked, “That’s makes 96, right?” The other team awkwardly smiled and walked away. The funny part is when Angus made that joke we at least had 90 species. As the evening progressed we heard the metallic “peent” of the Common Nighthawk and the distinctive growl of our stomachs.
After dinner, we went to Paulk’s Pasture in Brunswick. We got amazing looks at a red phase Eastern Screech Owl. Then we took a trip to YBC founder Tim Keyes’ house. He reported a Great-horned Owl with chicks in his backyard a few days before the competition. So, we rolled up to his house at about 10pm, like normal people do. We walked toward the back of his house, when Angus locked eyes with someone inside the window. It was none other than Angus’ own father. That could have been awkward. Angus’ dad and Tim’s wife explained that the owl was about a block away in a park, and (critically) they did not call the police.
We stood looking at 2 fluffy, muppet-ity looking little Great Horned Owls. They were, dare I say it, cute. We started to head back to Darien, and that was when the punch drunkenness started to set in. Various bird related raps, dubstep noises, owl impressions, mock podcasts, and other weird events occurred on the way. We arrived in Darien looking the Barn Owl boxes that had been placed there. We had no luck with the Barn Owls, but I learned an important life lesson. Sometimes, at 1am, after a hard day’s work, you just want to chase opossums. After the opossums were sufficiently chased, we headed back to Altamaha WMA. We got Barred Owl on the road back and we got out of the car `to look at it. Then I learned that some of the team had problems with tomorrow ‘s route. So at 2am we restructured the route, and without a voice I somehow convinced those with doubts that we didn’t need to stay the coast and should go to middle Georgia where we can get more diverse species. With that taken care of, we settled in to get 2 hours of sleep at the check station with a total of 96 species.
After we “slept” we packed up and headed for the road. We drove until we got to Glennville. We stopped because we were going 55 mph and Patrick, who was sitting in the back of the van which had tinted windows, saw white markings on a dove on a wire over an onion field. Sure enough, it was a White-winged Dove just as Patrick suspected. There was much rejoicing!
Our next stop was the Nongame office at Rum Creek. We saw Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Yellow-throated Vireo, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, and Cape May Warblers. Then we proceeded to the MARSH Project. Swainson’s Warbler, Hooded Warbler, Prothonotary Warbler, and Yellow-breasted Chat were present at the Project.
We headed to Piedmont Natural Wildlife Refuge, a good location to get Red-cockaded Woodpecker and Bachman’s Sparrow. We got Bachman’s Sparrow, but we did not get the woodpecker. We also got Cliff Swallows and Eastern Wood-pewees. Then we headed to Charlie Elliot Wildlife Center. We picked up Song Sparrow, White-throated Sparrow, and White-crowned Sparrow. Sadly, a tragedy befell the team. We preformed an R&B love song about a Bobwhite Quail trying to protect his nest. It was never recorded.
We entered the banquet with 156 species as our grand total. We had broken the previous record for the Youth Birding Competition! To make things even better, Angus had won the t-shirt contest had his painting of a Yellow-rumped Warbler plastered across everyone’s chest. Rosemary, won first place in the high school division for her painting of a Short-eared Owl. We were even part of a promotional video! Well, they are probably part of a promotional video. I was probably edited out for sounding like a choking goose.
We waited at our table anxiously awaiting the results of the competition. Angus had heard rumors that another team had 161 species, but I was skeptical. We were in 2nd place. The other team really did have 161. Initially I was disappointed. How could they get so lucky? We worked so hard! It was worth it though. The fun car trips, the awesome birds, and the great weekend with friends, I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I think we went 5 minutes before we were talking about how we can make next year better. It looks like 2015 will be another year of Kestrel Krossing.